Bourbon: The Spirit of the South

No drink – not Coca-Cola, not Dr. Pepper, not sweet tea – is as identified with the South as bourbon. It’s a go-to choice for a wide variety of occasions, and opinions about bourbon are as varied as opinions about the weather or where to go for lunch.

The stories surrounding the beginnings of bourbon, how it came by its name and who actually put the entire process together are shrouded and documentation is not easy to come by. It is agreed that the art of distillation was likely brought to America by Scottish immigrants who were experts in the art back in the old country and found a ready supply of quality grains to work with in their newfound homeland.

One of the tales in an interesting twist on how you think matters are suggests that Bourbon was actually invented by a Baptist minister, who also happened to be a distiller. This unusual marriage of vocation and avocation was in the form of Reverend Elijah Craig, who aged the product of his still in oak casks. Another tale has Mr. Jacob Spears naming his liquor Bourbon Whiskey.

Neither of these tales can be proven or disproven, and yet it does not end there. The very name itself is also up for discussion as to how it came about. Some folks hold that the whiskey took its name from the county in which it was first created. Bourbon County was a large land area originally comprising the entire western part of Virginia, and then becoming almost the entire state of Kentucky.  But where did the name of Bourbon County come from?

Some think the name of the product came from the ruling family in France and Spain, the Bourbons. But since the name of the whiskey was not applied until the 1850s, it is also suggested that the name is derived from the French Quarter street in New Orleans. The connection is that New Orleans, with its many bars and restaurants, was a large consumer of the whiskey and the port at New Orleans was the prime destination for bourbon as it came down the river, ready to head for market.

None of those tales can be verified, nor can they be refuted with hard evidence so it’s just fun to tell the story and let the facts fall where they may, whatever and wherever they may be.

It is true that the art of distillation of corn into whiskey is known as bourbon in Kentucky, but not so much in Tennessee, Canada, California, Colorado and a raft of other Midwestern states. Their whiskies are known as just that, sometimes placing the state’s name in front of that title, or they just use the brand name, like Jack Daniel’s.

Corn is the primary grain from which bourbon is made, and to that is added wheat and maybe malted barley.  There is a smattering of rye used for Kentucky Bourbon as well as for another fully rye-based whiskey. Whiskey begins its life by mashing the grain into a liquid state using pure water.

When the base ingredient of mash is taken from a previous batch, it is referred to as “sour mash,” and this is done to assure consistency, notably acidity, of the final product. To the mash is added yeast so fermentation can take place. Fermentation is the conversion of the sugars in the mash to alcohol.

When alcohol levels reach desired levels, the “wash,” as the fermented crushed grain is called at this point, is distilled. Distillation historically took place in alembic copper stills/pots, but today the column still is used which allows for continuous distillation rather than the batch distillation of the alembic still.

The liquid result of distillation is clear, and the color comes from the oak barrel aging. There is no legal definition of how long bourbon whiskey has to be aged, but obviously the longer it lays in the barrel, the smoother it becomes and the more expensive it is when it arrives at market. Aging in years of better bourbons is proudly displayed on the label.

After the bourbon has completed the fermentation and distillation process, water is added to the mix to bring the alcohol levels to 40 percent, which is equivalent of 80 proof. It can be higher but never lower unless the label discloses “diluted bourbon.” If the proof level approaches 120, they are labeled barrel proof, indicating they have not had water added to manage the alcohol levels.

What we can be certain about is that bourbon is a favorite of the American South. It is a versatile whiskey, capable of being mixed to create something quite satisfying, or standing on its own, with a few ice cubes delivering sweet flavors to a thirsty soul.

Whiskey is tied to important events in our region, such as the historic Mint Julep, most popular at Churchill Downs and particularly so in early May for the running of the Kentucky Derby horse race. Or whiskey is associated with one of the oldest known cocktails in the world, the Sazerac, the official cocktail of the city of New Orleans, the only city in America to boast an official cocktail.

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